Transfers are all the rage these days. The NCAA has opened up the floodgates for athletes to transfer one time without sitting out a season as well as the popular graduate transfer option. Transferring has become so commonplace that rosters, regardless of sport, are littered with players moving from one college to another looking for a better opportunity. Sometimes it’s for playing time, sometimes it’s to be on a winning team and the spoils that come with that like the Final Four or Omaha.
College basketball rosters are being heavily influenced by the transfer portal and Arkansas basketball coach Eric Musslemen is considered a pioneer in building a team around well fitting transfers. Countless peers, especially in the SEC, are now following in his footsteps.
Even a blueblood program like Kentucky is taking in transfers with six on their current roster. Roughly 1,800 Division I basketball players entered the transfer portal in the last nine months.
High school basketball is no different with many of the top players bouncing around between several high school and sometimes prep school teams looking for more than what they were getting at the previous stop. Former Razorback and current Golden State Warrior Moses Moody played his freshman season at Parkview, his sophomore year at North Little Rock and then moved on to prestigious Monteverde Academy in Florida for his final two seasons.
Three different schools seems like a lot of bouncing around but, believe it or not, that isn’t uncommon in high school basketball among some elite players.
Look at the highly regarded, soon-to-turn pro guard Bryson Warren, who went from North Little Rock to Central to Link Prep in Branson, Missouri — only to announce in early September that he was skipping his final two years of high school and turning pro. Pro as in signing with the new Overtime Elite league (OTE) that allows players as young as 16 to skip college and improve their basketball skills with NBA aspirations.
OTE guarantees a minimum salary of $100,000, full healthcare coverage and disability insurance and while doing what is labeled as “personalized academics”. Players are able to sign for much, much more as evidenced by four-star guard Bryce Griggs from Missouri City, TX signing with OTE for $1.2 million. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, rapper Drake and NBA superstar Kevin Durant are amongst the financial backers of OTE which is headquartered in Atlanta.
Enter Nick Smith Jr.
The latest drama in the high school basketball transfer market (at least in these parts) included the prized recruit of Musselman’s 2022 signing class, five-star guard Nick Smith, Jr. now of North Little Rock. Smith, ranked ESPN as the nation’s No. 6 player in his class, played his first three high school seasons at neighboring Sylvan Hills High School of the Pulaski County School District.
Reportedly, Nick Smith, Sr. moved near the North Little Rock High School campus setting up residency in the city. All sounds like countless other transfers around Central Arkansas schools, until it wasn’t.
Smith, Jr. was recently ruled ineligible by the Arkansas Activities Association (AAA) on the grounds he was recruited to the school. The flap seemed to center around his relationship with former North Little Rock’s volunteer strength coach Jim Eckhart, owner of Arkansas Fitness and Athletics.
Eckhart had worked officially with North Little Rock basketball for the previous four seasons and worked with several household names before being involved with NLR including Moses Moody, Davonte “Devo” Davis, former NBA star Joe Johnson and since the 6th grade…Nick Smith, Jr.
Eckhart has built a well-earned reputation training high level basketball athletes. That reputation leads players (or often times their parents) to Eckhart’s doorstep with a desire to hopefully be the next Moody or Davis. He doesn’t have to go “recruiting” for new clients. You want to improve your physique and fitness with aspirations of playing college basketball? Well, go to AFA.
Similarly, North Little Rock High is considered a powerhouse in-state basketball program with head coach (and former high school teammate of mine at the old North Little Rock Northeast High School) Johnny Rice winning five state championships and six trips to the finals in the last nine years. That kind of success leads good players to the school. Like bees to honey as the old saying goes.
Moving to North Little Rock gives Smith the chance to play with fellow five star and Oregon commit Kel’el Ware. Ware reportedly turned down a two-year, $900,000 contract with OTE to attend Oregon next year.
On the afternoon of Wednesday, October 27, the Pulaski County Special School District and North Little Rock School District announced they have allowed Nick Smith Jr. to play at NLRHS in the 2021-22 season.
The NLRSD stated that “both NLRSD and PCSSD agree there were violations of AAA rules but have determined this was at no fault of the student-athlete or the family. Therefore, it is time to move forward in the best interest of our student-athletes and stakeholders.”
Here’s the official statement:
This is great news not only for fans of North Little Rock High and high school basketball in the state overall, but the Arkansas basketball program as well. Find out more about that in the background story on the issue below. It originally ran the morning of October 27, 2021:
Interestingly, NLR also landed another Sylvan Hills transfer in small forward Corey Washington.
Washington didn’t come with the same fanfare as Smith but is drawing some mid-major interest and should be a nice complement to the Smith-Ware tandem if that comes to fruition. I wonder if anyone is looking into Washington’s transfer case?
Without knowing all the ins and outs of the Nick Smith, Jr. ineligibility issue, it’s hard to form a strong opinion one way or the other. Is the AAA being heavy handed because Smith is a high profile case? Was he truly recruited by the NLR program? Nobody really knows but the parties involved and I suspect this will all come out in the wash as the AAA has a procedural process to follow.
The AAA rule near the center of this appears to be regarding a non-school coach being a school coach. Word is Eckhart isn’t involved with the NLR basketball program this school year and hasn’t been involved with the program since March 2021 when last season ended. If he’s truly not working with the school in an official capacity in the applicable school year, how is Smith coming to NLR breaking the rules?
The issue is garnered major local media attention. Even longtime KATV sportscaster Steve Sullivan has weighed in on the subject and encourages the AAA to let Smith play. There would be more attention if there still wasn’t a chance for this to all be rectified in short order. Fortunately, if enough parties sign on, there is still an opportunity for his ineligibility to be reversed.
If no wrongdoing is found, North Little Rock is going to be very, very good and Smith gets an opportunity to excel in his senior year with aspirations of another North Little Rock state title. The upcoming season prepares him for his next step in the journey, the University of Arkansas and big time college basketball. How does anyone stop Smith and Ware at the high school level?
Cost to Arkansas Basketball?
If Smith is ruled ineligible and runs out of appeals, does he balk at finishing at NLR High School and subsequently walk away from the Razorbacks by signing with Overtime Elite and going pro? I have zero doubt OTE or people affiliated with such have been or will be in touch. On Tuesday, Arkansas basketball reporter Dudley Dawson speculated that Smith could sign a $400,000 to $450,000 one-year contract with the OTE, which may be conservative given that the four-star Bryce Grigg (ranked in the 40s) is going to play for $600,000 a year.
For the Overtime Elite, sense as adding another five-star player to their roster only adds legitimacy to what they are doing. What to do that’s in the best interest of Nick Smith, Jr. and his family is a tough one. A real tough one.
To me, the best case scenario would be for Smith to be ruled eligible and play out his senior season at NLR. High school diploma in hand and heading to play for Musselman who has a track record of getting guys to the NBA given all his experience at that level. Will he be a one and done like Moody? Who knows but all indications point towards that being a realistic possibility.
But I am not in Smith’s shoes so what I think is the best for him or what Razorback fans think is best for him may not align. And that’s ok. If none of this goes positively regarding eligibility and his non-binding Razorback commitment, fans will undoubtedly lose their minds on social media. Some of that anger will be due to the prospect of losing out on a very legit shot at the 2023 national title were Smith to sign (alongside fellow Top 10 player Jordan Walsh and three more Top 100 players).
This kind of reaction happens far too often nowadays. The angry mob goes after an athlete, often one that isn’t old enough to buy beer legally. Whatever happens, the Arkansas basketball fan base should strive to be better than that.
Regardless how this all shakes out, for the principal parties involved, the process needs to be efficient so each can get on with what’s next. For Smith, that means decisions to made regarding his academic and basketball future. For North Little Rock, getting their team ready with or without Smith. For the University of Arkansas, continuing to build a roster with or without Smith.
I’m afraid we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg on this issue with no solid feel for how this all plays out formally and on social media. The good news is that Smith current ineligibility at North Little Rock does not impact his NCAA eligibility whatsoever. He could, potentially, just play at a different school (likely a prep school) starting in January. Pig Trail Nation reporter Mike Irwin says he’s been told that’s more likely than going pro.
Fingers crossed all this doesn’t keep him from doing his thing in Bud Walton Arena next year.